Which of the German extermination camps was Polish?

Extermination camps: detailed information

Killing centers were set up in many places in German-occupied Europe during the Second World War. These institutions primarily or exclusively served the mass murder of people in an almost industrialized process. A few prisoners were temporarily able to escape death. They were used to support the main function of these institutions in some way. The killing centers are also known as "extermination camps" or "death camps".

Concentration camps were primarily used as detention and forced labor camps. However, smaller, selected groups of people were also murdered there. Extermination camps, on the other hand, were mostly pure "death factories". Almost 2,700,000 Jews were murdered in the extermination camps by the SS and the police by suffocating with poison gas or by shooting.

Chelmno (Kulmhof)

Chelmno (Kulmhof) was the first killing center to start operating in December 1941. It was located in the Reichsgau Wartheland, which comprised a part of Poland annexed by Germany. In Chelmno, a former aristocratic mansion served as a reception facility. Members of a special SS and police unit, which was subordinate to the SS and Police Chief for the Wartheland, guarded the facility. They killed their victims in trucks whose exhaust pipes had been modified so that carbon monoxide could be discharged into a sealed space behind the vehicle cabin. The bodies were then transported to a nearby forest where mass graves had been dug. Between December 1941 and March 1943 and June and July 1944, the Germans killed at least 172,000 people in Chelmno. Almost all of the victims were Jews, but there were also 4,300 Sinti and Roma and an unknown number of Poles and Soviet prisoners of war.

Action Reinhard

Aktion Reinhard (Einsatz Reinhard) was the code name for the Germans' plan to murder the roughly two million Jews who lived in the so-called Generalgouvernement. The Generalgouvernement was part of Germany-occupied Poland, which was not directly annexed by Germany, annexed to German East Prussia or integrated into the German-occupied Soviet Union. To implement Aktion Reinhard, the SS and police set up three extermination camps: Belzec and Sobibor in the Lublin district and Treblinka II in the Warsaw district. SS and police officers from the staff of the SS and police chief in Lublin directed the extermination camps intended for Aktion Reinhard. Police officers trained in a special camp in the Lublin district, the Trawniki training camp, guarded the camps and supported the killings.

Belzec started operations in March 1942, at the same time as the deportations of Jews from Lublin and Lwów (Lemberg). Sobibor started operations in May 1942 with the deportation of Jews from rural areas of the Lublin district. Treblinka II started operations in July 1942, at the same time as the mass deportation of Warsaw Jews in the summer of 1942.

The victims of the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps included Polish, German, Austrian, Dutch, French, Czech and Slovak Jews as well as Sinti and Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and Poles. The SS and the police killed most of the prisoners deported to the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps in stationary gas chambers into which lethal carbon monoxide gas was injected via truck engines. A few smaller numbers of the prisoners were shot.

A few prisoners were selected from each transport to support the main function of the camps: the murder of people. Often referred to as "labor Jews" and sometimes collectively as "Sonderkommando", they worked in the killing sites. Their task was to carry the corpses out of the gas chambers and initially to bury them in mass graves. At the end of 1942 and 1943, the Jewish forced laborers had to dig up the bodies again and burn them in huge trenches on makeshift "ovens" made of railroad tracks.

Other selected prisoners who temporarily escaped death worked in administration and reception. They were used when getting off the trains, undressing, removing valuables and transferring newcomers to the gas chambers. They later sorted out the belongings of the murdered for transport to Germany and were responsible for cleaning the freight wagons for the next deportation. The SS and the police, as well as the assistants trained in Trawniki, regularly murdered the Jewish workers in these special detachments and replaced them with other prisoners selected from newly arriving transports.

Between March 1942 and November 1943, the SS and auxiliary workers murdered around 1,526,500 Jews in the extermination camps set up especially for Aktion Reinhard. Belzec ceased operations in December 1942, Sobibor and Treblinka were closed in November 1943. Around 300 prisoners from these three camps survived. Almost all of them fled in August and October 1943 during the uprisings in Treblinka II and Sobibor.


The largest extermination camp was Auschwitz-Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. It was located in Upper Silesia, a Polish province of the interwar period that was annexed directly to Germany. The SS authorities established Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1942.

In contrast to Chelmno and the Aktion Reinhard extermination camps, the Auschwitz concentration camp complex was not subordinate to the regional SS and police chief. Auschwitz was part of the concentration camp system under the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office. Auschwitz-Birkenau was originally intended as a forced labor camp for a large number of initially Soviet prisoners of war and later Jewish forced laborers who were to be used in construction projects by the SS. Auschwitz-Birkenau developed into an extermination camp in the first few weeks of its existence. With the first transports of Slovak Jews in the spring of 1942, the SS introduced a selection process. Jews unable to work were sent directly to two makeshift gas chambers.

In the spring of 1942, following the Wannsee Conference, Himmler and the RSHA designated Auschwitz-Birkenau as the “end of the line” for European Jews (with the exception of Jews from the Warthegau, the Generalgouvernement, and the occupied Soviet Union). As a result, the SS authorities built four enlarged and "improved" gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which were completed in early 1943. Like other concentration camps, but different from other extermination camps, the SS used Zyklon B gas (hydrogen cyanide) in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As part of the deportation of Hungarian Jews in the spring of 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau reached its highest death rate. Up to 6,000 Jews were gassed by the SS every day. By November 1944, the SS had killed more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of Sinti and Roma, Poles and Soviet prisoners of war in Auschwitz-Birkenau. At least 865,000 Jews were killed immediately upon arrival. Most of them were murdered in the gas chambers.

In contrast to Chelmno and the extermination camps of Aktion Reinhard, Auschwitz-Birkenau also functioned as a forced labor camp and as an internment camp for Jewish families and Sinti and Roma families. In fact, the facility always retained its original function as a forced labor camp, although the main function from 1942 onwards was mass extermination. In 1944 the SS liquidated the residents of the Jewish family camp, almost all of whom had been deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The SS also killed the residents of the Sinti and Roma family camp who had been deported from Germany, Austria and the Czech lands. In the course of these operations, almost 10,800 Jews and almost 2,900 Sinti and Roma were killed in the gas chambers.

The Camps of Aktion Reinhard and Chelmno were evacuated after they had served their murderous purpose. Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the other hand, continued to serve as a concentration camp for forced laborers after the gas chambers were destroyed in November 1944. Most prisoners, however, had been forcibly evacuated on foot or on trains before the camp was liberated by Soviet Army units on January 27, 1945.

Lublin / Majdanek

Many historians have regarded the Lublin concentration camp, which is located near the Lublin suburb of Majdan in the General Government and is often referred to as "Majdanek" (Little Majdan), as the sixth extermination camp. However, recent research has revealed new insights into the functions and processes in Lublin / Majdanek. Just like Auschwitz-Birkenau, but in contrast to the Chelmno extermination camps and Aktion Reinhard, Lublin / Majdanek was intended as a large-scale forced labor camp in which Soviet prisoners of war and later Jews were to be housed. When the SS founded the camp in November 1941, it was called the "POW camp of the Waffen-SS Lublin" and was subordinate to the SS and police chiefs of the Lublin district. It was later incorporated into the concentration camp system.

In contrast to Auschwitz, Lublin / Majdanek never lost its primary function as a forced labor and concentration camp. In November and December 1942, 24,000 Jews arrived there. These were actually intended for the Belzec extermination camp, but the Germans decided in October to close Belzec. The majority of the Jews deported to Majdanek had been preselected as potential forced laborers in the ghetto, at the train station in Lublin or in the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps.

During the construction phase of the camp from November 1941 to the end of spring 1943, the general living conditions in Lublin / Majdanek were appalling. Most of the prisoners died directly as a result of these circumstances or were so weakened and unable to work that they were killed by the SS in the gas chambers.

Recent studies have shown that a maximum of 170,000 prisoners (presumably fewer) passed through the main camp in Lublin / Majdanek. Almost half of them were Jews, the rest of the prisoners were mainly Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Soviet civilians and Czechs. Between 80,000 and 90,000 of the prisoners were Jews. The SS killed between 60,000 and 72,000 of the Jews, with less than half killed on arrival and not all of the victims in the gas chambers. The majority of the Jewish victims in Lublin / Majdanek died as a result of brutal conditions or mistreatment or were sent to the gas chambers in small groups after registering in the camp and determining that they were unable to work. Up to 20,000 people were believed to have been shot weeks or months after arriving at the camp. These included the last 18,000 Jewish prisoners who were shot on November 3, 1943 as part of the “harvest festival” in trenches right next to the camp.

Between March 1942 and November 1943, Jewish prisoners formed the majority - and at times the overwhelming majority - of the prisoners in the Lublin / Majdanek concentration camp. After the murders of the “Aktion Erntefest” in November 1943, Jews made up the lowest proportion of prisoners in Majdanek (357 of 6,565 in December 1943, 5.44%). Between April and July 1944 the SS evacuated practically all surviving prisoners from Majdanek to other concentration camps further west. On July 23 and 24, 1944, only a few hundred prisoners were freed by the Soviet troops.

Secrecy of the extermination camps

The SS classified the events in the extermination camps as top secret information. As with other aspects of the “final solution to the Jewish question” and all matters relating to the events in the camps operated by the SS, the perpetrators were sworn to secrecy. Unauthorized disclosure of information could result in criminal prosecution. Partly to maintain this secrecy and partly for hygienic and spatial reasons, the SS leadership instructed the camp authorities in autumn 1942 to burn the bodies of the murdered from now on and to exhume already buried corpses in order to also burn them. In the extermination camps of Aktion Reinhard and in Chelmno, the corpses were burned in "open-air ovens" that had been made makeshift from railway tracks. External special units made up of Jewish forced laborers were entrusted with this gruesome task in Belzec and Chelmno, as well as after the uprisings of Treblinka II and Sobibor. After they had finished their work, the prisoners in these units were shot by the SS or their assistants trained in Trawniki. In 1942-1943, large crematoria were built in Auschwitz-Birkenau together with the new gas chambers. Special detachments made up of Jewish workers selected from the incoming transports disposed of the bodies until the gassings stopped in November 1944.

The extermination camps of Aktion Reinhard were completely cleared and the area was redesigned to disguise the former facilities as farms. In the first Chelmno extermination camp, camp officials tore down the camp and the so-called manor house before clearing the site in April 1943. Between the spring and summer of 1944, the site was briefly used again as a gassing site, primarily for Jews from the Lodz ghetto. The gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau were also demolished by the SS after the last gassings in November 1944, but the camp continued to function as a concentration camp until the arrival of the Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.

Last edited: Apr 20, 2021